Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sunday 28th February 2010, Second of Lent Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18 Luke 13.31-35

Each week I read through the set lectionary readings for Sunday, and see which ones ‘speak’ to me before deciding which ones to preach on. And the Old Testament reading today made me sit up and wonder whether I was up to tackling it. So here goes…

This passage from Genesis is one of the classic blood & gore ceremonies of the ancient world. They probably still take place in some parts of the world, but here, in the UK in the 21st century it all seems rather messy, cutting animal carcasses in half and laying the parts out on the ground.

What was all that about?

Let’s put this episode into the context of Abram’s life so far.

(And so far, he was still Abram; the issue of circumcision was still in the future, and that was when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham.)

This is the thing: Abram was the one chosen by God, and he was also the one who listened when God spoke to him. Ten generations previously, Noah had been alone in listening to God, and now only Abram was listening. And, like Noah, not just listening, but obeying.

He was married to Sarai and the two had followed a journey as God had revealed it to Abram.

They had travelled to Canaan, and to Egypt, and from one end to the other of the country we call Israel or Palestine, all because the Lord spoke to Abram and told him to go there.

And during all the years of their travelling both Abram and Sarai longed for a child, a son, and there was none.

Abram had doubts. God had promised him a son, an heir. Having no son, in his culture, was like a sentence to eternal death.

Eternal life, in the ancient Hebrew culture, was through a man’s children, and specifically through sons. They would carry on his line. Sons represented the future, a continuation of himself.

Abram was honest about his doubts. And he told God about how he felt. In fact he had a real whinge. He didn’t pretend to believe in the face of his real doubts; he told it to the Lord like he felt it. “O Lord God, what will you give me? … You have given me no offspring…”

And yet, when the Lord shows him the stars in the sky and tells him his descendants will be as numerous as those stars, Abram believes. He really believes. And the Lord, who knows all the secrets of Abram’s heart, knows he believes, and “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

At this point in Abram’s journey he has just had an encounter with Melchizedek, the priest and king, who had wanted to honour Abram, but Abram had scrupulously avoided taking anything from him, because he served God only. He could have taken advantage of the situation and profited from the priest-king, but the spiritual power of Melchizedek had impressed Abram, and they treated each other with due respect.

This, then, after what might have been a test of honesty, is the point at which, with belief in his heart, Abram asks the Lord for a sign: “How shall I know that I shall possess all this land?” And God gives him a sign, following the rituals Abram would have recognised. The Lord almighty, Creator of all that is, visible and invisible, stooped to follow human rules and rituals to give his beloved Abram the sign he craved, in the blood and entrails of the sacrificial animals.

That this was a serious covenant ceremony is borne out elsewhere in the Old Testament, AND the penalty should the covenant be broken. Jeremiah 34.18: The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.

A strong warning, and confirmation of the binding nature of this covenant. It is a vow to the death.

And it is God who takes the oath. Abram provides the animals for sacrifice and prepares them, and protects them from scavenging birds, but it is God who takes the smoking fire-pot and the flaming torch and passes between the pieces of the animals. It is the Lord himself who made the covenant with Abram, not the other way round.

(It is a kind of preview of the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day that guided Moses and the Children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt.)

And in this way, God made his covenant promise to Abram, that he would be a father to millions.

And this was AFTER Abram had taken the Lord at his word, and believed. It was after he had accepted what the Lord said, that he was given this dramatic sign of God’s faithfulness. The Lord was showing him, in terms he could understand, just how seriously he, the Lord, took his own promise.

Last week, in the Gospel reading with Jesus in the wilderness facing temptations, we heard how it was AFTER Jesus had held on and been faithful to his purpose in the desert, THAT was when angels attended him.

God will stretch us, sometimes to the limit, but he will not leave us and he is faithful. And if we can believe that, and if we can hold on too, it will be reckoned to US, even to US, as righteousness.

And God stretches himself, too. Just what it cost him to keep not only the letter but the spirit of these ancient promises to his people is spelled out in the Gospel reading from Luke.

Jesus is under threat, and is aware of the danger in going to Jerusalem, and is heading there in certain knowledge that he will die there, and yet he brushes away warnings about Herod and weeps instead over Jerusalem.

What a lovely image he uses to express his desire to bring the holy city back to God: the mother hen gathering her chicks protectively under her wings, clucking and fussing over them like hens do, worrying if any of them stray away from the safety of the wings circling them.

Such a different image from the OT speaking of eagles’ wings soaring high.

The mother hen is on the ground with the chicks, and she is vulnerable too, because in protecting her chicks she leaves herself open to attack, because she won’t run away.

The line calling Herod “that fox” is an expression well-preserved by Luke.

There was a contemporary saying “Be a tail to lions and not a head to foxes”, which might even have been in Jesus’ mind when he said it. In that saying, the lion stands for nobility worth following, in preference to being manipulated as a mouthpiece for the untrustworthy fox. Herod was sly and cunning and not to be trusted. Jesus was wholly to be trusted to continue the path ordained for him to the bitter end. A vow to the death.

Abram asked and asked for what he wanted, and trusted even in the face of years of disappointment. It was to be many more years before his wife bore Isaac. Abram was not perfect, but God values faith rather than moral perfection

And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

God had said to Abram, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield”. And Abram DID believe.

How do we believe?

How confident are WE to put into practice what we learn of God, what we learn of Jesus, what we learn of how God asks us to live?

And if we sometimes have doubts, do we acknowledge them before God, or do we try and pretend we feel as holy as we think we should?

We might sometimes kid others, but we won’t kid God.

How honest are we about the way we live out the rest of the week what we say we believe on Sunday?

How honest are we about our giving, our tithing?

How honest are we about our FORgiving?

About our learning to love those we find difficult?

Those who seem to go out of their way to trip us up rather than offer a helping hand.

We can take a useful leaf out of Abram’s book, and be truly honest with God, even if that means complaining to him as Abram did. God will honour our honesty over any false piety we might offer him.

Honest faith holds an inkling of doubt. The Lord knows how hard it can be for us to hold the faith. But he asks us to do it anyway.

Believe, and be faithful, and wait upon the Lord.

What a hard thing to do.

[Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.]

We ask for strength to wait and trust.

And to remember that the faithful path isn’t always the safe one.

Blessed IS the one who comes in the name of the Lord.



Martin Warner, Church Times 26 Feb 2010

Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections Year C

H. Clay Trumbull, The Blood Covenant

Monday, 22 February 2010

Sermon preached on the first Sunday of Lent, 21st February 2010

Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16

Romans 10.8b-13

Luke 4.1-13

This gospel reading is well-known, and it is a traditional beginning to Lent. Jesus has just had the spiritual high point of his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, when the voice of God was heard by all who were there on the riverbank: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

And the Holy Spirit appeared too, as a dove, and alighted upon him. A moment of wonder to the crowds, and who knows how wonderful for Jesus himself?

And this before he had begun his mission among people! Until then he had been a carpenter in Nazareth.

But before the work of God that Jesus was born for could begin properly, Jesus submitted to a physical and spiritual discipline. Fasting AND praying.

It was a rigorous test by anybody’s standards, and he was tempted in three potential areas of weakness:

· The first: physical hunger - Jesus was fully human, and was as hungry after forty days without eating as any of us would be. He was tempted to break the fast by using divine power to made bread from the stones. He could have done this… but he didn’t. He chose to bear the hunger.

· The second: ambition - the temptation to distance himself from his place within an equal trinity to become Lord of everything on earth. Power is an attractive bait.

· The third: glory - at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was tempted to show the world just who he was by giving a miraculous show from the top of the temple. It would be the ultimate showing-off. After that, who could doubt him? Even those not present at the river to see the dove and hear the voice would have to believe in him.

There are some interesting points to note in this passage. We’re told that Jesus was led BY THE SPIRIT into the desert. This same Holy Spirit who, with God the Father, had affirmed Jesus so spectacularly so recently.

But now the Son was led to the desert, where he would be tested by himself, without the overt support of the Father and the Spirit.

And before the end of the testing Jesus had to grapple with the Devil. And if we have a look at the account of the same wilderness experience as recorded by Matthew, it was AFTER Jesus had succeeded in resisting all the devil’s ploys that angels came attended him. The temptations were faced in his human strength, not divine.

It is also a bit chilling to notice that when the devil did leave, Luke says, it was until an opportune time. Which suggests the devil returned at a later date.

It is chilling, but also sort of encouraging. Because this is what we should expect ourselves if we are serious about growing in our faith.

If we submit to a discipline for Lent, or at any other time, we should expect to be tempted to abandon it, or modify it if it gets difficult. (And it will get difficult.)

We have Jesus’ example to follow. Jesus fought the devil with words of Scripture: “It is written…” he said, repeatedly.

Where is it written?

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible.

· Man does not live by bread alone: Deuteronomy 8.3

· Worship the Lord your God and serve him only: Deuteronomy 6.13

· Do not put the Lord your God to the test: Deuteronomy 6.16

But the devil knows Scripture too. The verses he quotes to tempt Jesus to prove his divinity are straight out of Psalm 91 (vv. 11 & 12). The devil knows where to strike us, all right.

But every time the devil offered him more - more bread, more power, more protection - Jesus turned him down. He says No to the bread, no to the kingdoms, no to the angelic bodyguards.

So by the end of the episode, the devil still has all his bribes in his bag and Jesus is free to go. And then angels came and attended him.

When it's our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We're likely to get the standard Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won't need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to have us dancing to his tune.

But what about the wilderness? Where is OUR wilderness?

We might already, every one of us, have had a wilderness experience.

· It might have been in a hospital waiting room,

· or a cheap bed and breakfast somewhere after losing the house we lived in,

· or the car park where you couldn’t find your car on the day you lost your job.

· It might have been a kind of desert within our own self, begging for a word from God and hearing nothing.


How do we cope with these wilderness times?

We can try and do it as Jesus did. He counteracted every enticement of the devil with words of Scripture.

In the reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans, which we had this morning, he recommends this, too. “What does scripture say?” he asks. “ ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’ ”

And Paul, too, is quoting the Old Testament, from Deuteronomy again, chapter 30, verse 14. In context, from verse 11, it reads:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

This is the OLD Testament! Sounding very like the NEW Testament!

We NEED words of Scripture to have at hand, as weapons for when temptation strikes us. And we need them before we know we need them, like a smoke alarm. We don’t wait until the house is on fire to go and buy one. We have one fitted in case, to protect us, so we have a better chance when danger strikes.

We also need to remember the TWO threads to Jesus’ experience in the desert. there was fasting AND there was prayer.

The prayer, and Scripture, enabled Jesus to be strong at a time when his body was weak. We can think of our own soul, our spirit, as a muscle which needs exercise to be strong, like any other muscle.

The devil knows our weak spots and that is where he will attack us. But if our spiritual muscle is kept toned and exercised then we will be better able to resist and stay true to our resolve and to Jesus’ teachings.

This is why the giving up whatever is our particular pleasure during Lent is only any good to us if it is also accompanied by prayer. And we should expect to meet the devil, too. He will not like Christians making a better effort to follow Christ. He will put a spanner in our works if we let him.

Take home your pew sheet with the Bible readings on it. Read them at home. And say the prayers. And if you would like a suggestion for a verse to memorise as a weapon, try verse 2 from Psalm 91: You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust. That’s this week’s homework!

Forewarned is forearmed! Let’s be ready!

Let’s pray: Lord, you are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.


Sunday, 14 February 2010

Sermon preached at a service of Baptism within Morning Prayer at the Church of St Gregory the Great, Rendlesham

Luke 9.28-36

Let’s begin with the date: 14th February - St Valentine’s Day.

All over the country today are people opening cards of varying degrees of tackiness…

“Roses are red, violets are blue;
the cabbage is green, and so are you - !”

Yes, it’s another consumerfest, but with its beginnings in something holy, like so many other festivals that have been corrupted.

Depending on which sources you read, there were two or three saints called Valentine, and they all died for love, but it wasn’t romantic love they died for, but love of Jesus Christ. Sainthood is usually hard-won, and Valentine, whichever Valentine, was no exception.

This is not the kind of result of living in faith any of us hope to have to suffer, and it certainly isn’t part of our hopes and prayers for our new young Christian, George.

But it is right to think about what difference living by faith makes in our lives.

Because living by faith in Jesus, as his disciples, SHOULD make a difference. If it doesn’t make a difference, and if it doesn’t pinch sometimes, then we have to ask if we’re doing it right.

Let’s think about this reading: this episode on the mountain when Peter, James and John were blessed by seeing Jesus in his glory, and Moses and Elijah with him.

We understand Moses to represent the Law, the Commandments brought down from that other mountain to the Children of Israel; and Elijah representing the prophets, who speak for God, and told of the coming Messiah, the Saviour.

We’re told the disciples were weighed down with sleep, but they stayed awake anyway, and were rewarded with this extraordinary sight, when Jesus’ appearance changed so dramatically, and the two giants of the Hebrew faith appeared.

In the OT reading for today (on the pew sheet) there is the telling of the time Moses came down from Mount Sinai, and because he had been talking with God, his face shone, and he had to wear a veil because the others couldn’t look at him, his face was shining so brightly. From that time, Moses had to cover his face in front of his own people, and only be uncovered before God.

He was, in some way, separated from the rest of the people.

We might think that doesn’t apply to us - people don’t have such a glow about them nowadays that they have to veil their faces, but that is a cause for concern.

Many of us might, without knowing it, be putting on a veil ourselves, to avoid coming into contact with the glory of God, because before him who can stand?

How many of us can honestly say we have moved from "glory to glory" over this past year? (I’m not sure I can.)

On Wednesday we move into the season of Lent. This Lenten season is an opportunity to "turn to the Lord" and practice spiritual disciplines that will "renew our minds" so that we can come to Easter with veils removed and renewed hope ahead.

Let’s notice how this vision came to the disciples: they weren’t being busy and scurrying around building the kingdom, they were just out with their friend Jesus, up the mountain, and not doing anything much. They were watching Jesus pray - just accompanying him in his meeting with God.

Just as with someone we love, words aren’t always necessary, our relationship with God grows in the space we make for him. Peter, John and James just waited for Jesus, and what a revelation of God they had in that slack moment. It gives a whole new meaning to the thought that where two or three are gathered, there is the Lord with us.

This thought can be translated into the life of the church: how might our churches be different if we learnt to accept the reality of God’s presence with us, as much at a rural church service, with a handful of a congregation, as at a service with many dozens or hundreds present?

We don’t have to fill Lent, or our lives, with hype, or forced emotion or activity. All we need to do is to give God and each other space.

We don't so much build the kingdom of God: we are the kingdom of God. Just as WE ARE the church. Christ in us, the hope of glory. Is that a tall order? Yes! It takes working at.

Let’s remember: nothing changed for Jesus in that mountaintop experience; the disciples just saw him for who he was for the first time. And to start with, it just changed what they thought he could and should do. They wanted him to act like they wanted the long-awaited Messiah to act, confront the Romans and the religious leaders and establish the reign of God.

As things turned out, Jesus simply lived the reality of God's kingdom. He didn't try to make anything happen or force or manipulate this outcome or that outcome. He simply was honestly and unashamedly himself, the obedient Son of the Father.

This is why we bring our children to be baptised in his name.

This is a happy day for George and his family. If we’re fortunate, God sends a lot of happy days into our life. The day that we meet Jesus is the happiest day of our life, - for George we pray that he will grow into a living faith of his own, and that will be his happiest day - but it isn't a stopping place -- it is a starting point for a journey that leads to eternal life in heaven with Him.

This is why, if anybody here is not already baptised or confirmed, it is something you might give serious thought to.

St Valentine died for love of Jesus, but then, Jesus died for love of you and me. Nobody loves us more than Jesus, and that is why saints like Valentine died for him, and why people like us aspire to live for him.

And God is there for us to lay our burdens before him, and our difficulties.

Thanks be to God.

Thanks to Textweek, and to comments from the Facebook group The Text This Week - thank you all.

ps. I invited everyone to write on a heart-shaped post-it the name of a person or an issue they find difficult to love, as Jesus teaches we should love our enemies, and if we take our discipleship seriously, then we need to work at loving our enemies. Then we gathered the paper hearts and stuck them on to a very large heart and laid it at the altar, asking God to help us love our enemies. Afterwards, removing the post-its, I noticed someone had written ‘The French’. For the minister to be doubled up laughing in front of the altar is probably a breach of church etiquette…

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Sermon from last Sunday

7th Feb 2010 - Sermon preached at Eyke & Tunstall

Readings for 2nd Sunday before Lent: Genesis 2.4b-9, 15-25; Revelation 4; Luke 8.22-25

We’ve been planning a holiday for after Easter: it’s an exciting trip. We’re going to visit our son, Robert, who is out in South Korea working there. It’s exciting, and it’s a very long way… about 12 hours in the air, non-stop.

We did this once before, a couple of years ago, and we usually take holidays in the UK, so this is quite an adventure for us. But a lot of people fly often, and for them it’s an everyday event.

Back when air travel was new to the general public, in the ’50s and ’60s, I’ve read that people would actually dress up to go and take a flight; men would wear suits and ties, women would wear smart dresses, and they would wear something like their Sunday best, because it was so special to fly in an aeroplane. (people in the congregation nodded at this, remembering)

And people would really want to sit by the window, and would exclaim about looking down on the clouds, and seeing the wing of the aircraft - “Oh, wow, the wing!” But today people very often don’t want the window seat. They prefer the aisle where there’s more leg room. Instead of oohs and aahs on the plane, there is the tap, tap of laptop computers. (Our organist, Richard, nodded a trifle wryly at this - he organises pilgrimages among other frequent trips. I'm not bitter.)

I wonder sometimes if we don’t come to worship like sophisticated travellers, walking into the service rather blasé about it, because we’ve done this so many times, and got used to it. We don’t usually come in expectant wonder, or in anticipation of something awesome.
John, the visionary writer of the Book of Revelation, paints a picture of worship that is full of wonder and awe. John describes being caught up as if through a doorway to heaven, and finds himself in the middle of an almighty cosmic worship service.

But the descriptions mystify us as much as clarify what is going on in the heavenly court.

What is seen there is beyond our imagining, and it is the lot of the visionary to try to describe that which is beyond description, because it is beyond any earthly experience.
The images in the mind of the writer are those of jewels and the rainbow: brightness and glorious light.
The creatures around the throne don’t fit into any ordinary earthly categories, but the 24 elders who sit around the indescribable throne are recognizably human, and the worship that they and the strange creatures offer can be put into words, so we the readers can share in that, at least: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty.
Hallowed be thy name, we pray - we pray at nearly every church service, and probably most of us every other day besides.

This expression “thy name” was one the Jewish people would use to avoid saying the name of the most high God, which was so holy it was not even to be uttered in worship.

In the Bible God is not simply holy. God is called holy, holy, holy.
(We sang this in both churches during the service: at Eyke the very traditional Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee; and at Tunstall, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and is, and is to come, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord. I love Revelation.)

Holy to the power three. Holy cubed.

That's because in the Hebrew language, emphasis comes through repetition. When Jesus wanted his hearers to pay close attention, he would say, "Truly, I tell you”, or “Verily, I say unto you." And if he was saying something of ultimate importance, he said, "Truly, truly” (or “Verily, verily.") So, God is holy, holy, holy.
To hallow means to set aside as special or holy. It has to do with reverence, awe and wonder.
The holiness of God should leave us awestruck, and maybe give us goosepimples as we contemplate the majesty of God.
The famous Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, wrote, "A human in the presence of God is going to feel one of two ways. Either you feel like a small, dirty object, or you lose thought of yourself altogether."

And then he said, "The latter is by far preferable."

That's the problem that many of us mainstream churchgoers have -- somehow getting outside ourselves - losing ourselves - in worship and connecting with the wonder of the presence of God.
This connection with the presence of God takes us back to the reading from Genesis.

In Genesis 2 we have the second story of how God made people.

In Genesis 1, God makes humanity as the culmination of his labours, a kind of completion.

Genesis 2 also has humanity as central, but here, man is made first, and everything else is then made to keep him company. As God makes all the living creatures he brings them to Adam to see what he will call them. This picture of God and Adam playing together sets the tone of this stage of the story. There is an unimaginable closeness between God and the man that he has made from nothing.
Here, we the readers know what is ahead: the temptation, the Fall, the distance, the rift opened between God and his creation. But for this reading, all we see is the peace and closeness that exist between God, Adam and Eve. Notice that they do not need, explicitly, to worship God here in Eden. They just need to live with him.

They live alongside God.

The thought of that scene in the garden is a vision of awe and wonder even greater than that painted by Revelation, but in a way that is altogether more intimate and almost homely, rather than the majestic images in Revelation. The lightning and thunder and flaming torches are absent; the beauty of the scene is in the perfection of the garden and the closeness of God, and his deep care for the creatures he has made.
So between Genesis and Revelation, a distance has opened up between God and his human beings. The familiarity and ease of the relationship between God and Adam is replaced by the awe and wonder of knowing just how far above us is the God who made us.

That distance might seem unbridgeable. But it isn’t. What makes the bridging possible is Jesus. In the episode from Jesus’ life we read from Luke’s Gospel, we see the Son acting like the Creator, bringing order out of chaos, commanding the waters. The human Jesus holds together the Creator and the creation as he stands in the boat and stills the storm.

It is Jesus, too, who gave us the link between our humanity and eternity, and gave us an earthly means of celebrating a heavenly reality. He took bread and wine and blessed them, and made them holy, set apart for a special purpose, and commanded us to do the same. And in eating and drinking these holy things, by taking them into our own physical bodies, we somehow absorb something of Jesus himself. That is the mystery.
Remember the plane trip? The wonder of looking out at the tops of the clouds, and at the wings that miraculously keep us airborne, not wonderful any more because we get used to it. Let’s not get so used to our worship that we forget to wonder about what it all means. Earth and heaven meeting.
I found another Facebook link this week: Worship… is where life meets ultimate reality… A place where we sense eternal Significance and realize that we were created to “Live our lives to the full… in the presence of the God who loves us more than we could ever imagine!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Grateful acknowledgement to Sally Coleman for the image from her blog; to the Textweek website for inspiration; and to 'Lectionary Reflections' by Jane Williams for even more inspiration. Thank you all for helping me feed my flocks.